July 26--Lionel Loueke's jump from acoustic guitar to electric on his latest Blue Note recording, Heritage, doesn't seem like such a sea change when you consider the Benin native once resorted to replacing broken guitar strings with bicycle brake cable. Resourcefulness has been a trademark of Loueke's career. It's also a mark of his music. He's mined the rhythms and harmonies of his African homeland as well as studying the improvisational techniques of some of the great American jazz guitar masters. Behind it all is a personal warmth and lyricism that makes his sound unique. That sound has been recognized by some of the greatest names in jazz -- Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, and Terence Blanchard among them -- who have included the guitarist in their recordings and performances. It's remarkable that someone so accomplished didn't even know who these musicians were as he was learning his craft. "No, they were not my heroes," Loueke told Pasatiempo. "I didn't know that much about them until I went to study in Paris. Before then, I was listening mostly to guitarists like Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, and Wes Montgomery."
Loueke's long journey from his West African home to concert halls and jazz festivals worldwide -- his trio opens for Terence Blanchard on Friday, July 26, as part of the New Mexico Jazz Festival -- seems improbable until you hear him. He started out as a young man playing percussion and later bass, but he always felt drawn to make his own way through the music rather than repeat the grooves the local band required. After picking up the guitar at 17, he was exposed to the work of George Benson when a friend brought back a recording from France. Here was something new, a player who seemed to go his own way inside the music, as Loueke wanted to do. Not realizing what the craft of improvisation was, he began to transcribe the guitarist's every note. Later, the recordings of other American jazz guitarists became an influence, granting a different view from that he'd acquired playing rhythmic Nigerian guitar music of the sort performed by King Sunny Ade and others.
Loueke eventually saved the money to travel to Paris to attend the American School of Modern Music, where he studied harmony and notation. There he won a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and his jazz training began in earnest. He also had to become accustomed to street talk (English is Loueke's third language). When he felt ready to make the move to New York City, his Berklee instructors encouraged him instead to audition for a spot at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, then located at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The judges of the audition included Hancock, Blanchard, and Shorter. It was at the Monk Institute that he met bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth, who make up his trio, as well as the vocalist Gretchen Parlato, who makes a guest appearance on Heritage.
Loueke credits instructor Mick Goodrick at Berklee, a veteran of work with everyone from Stan Kenton and Woody Herman to Gary Burton and DeJohnette, and a brief stint learning from guitarist John Scofield at the Monk Institute with solidifying his direction. "I learned a lot from them both, but most importantly they inspired my creativity." Trumpeter Blanchard tapped the guitarist for his 2003 Blue Note recording Bounce, and Loueke has been with him ever since. "Lionel is a once in a generation kind of musician," Blanchard said. "He's extremely unique, extremely creative, and at the same time, extremely dedicated to his art form. Lots of people who have unique talent think that's where it ends. Lionel works hard to develop his sound and craft everyday."
"It's great to be a part of his band," Loueke said of Blanchard. "His music always tells you what to do rather than the other way around."
Loueke's recorded a handful of albums with his trio since 2005, the last three from Blue Note. The latest is the most innovative, most definitive of the guitarist's sound. Heritage is co-produced by crossover jazz keyboardist Robert Glasper, and it doesn't seem out of Loueke's style at all, even though it is more contemporary and more predictably rhythmic than its predecessors. "It was my idea to play electric guitar on Heritage," Loueke said. "The sustain of the electric was the solution and direction of my compositions. I wanted to explore new horizons." The electric guitar isn't so out of character for someone who cut his teeth on Nigerian juju music and learned from recordings of Tal Farlow and Wes Montgomery. (Loueke may also be heard adding warm electric harmonics on Blanchard's latest recording.) It's just another part of a long musical journey.
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